Rock Solid Licks: Lessons From Another Stage

by guest blogger David Wyatt.

DavidWyatt_SolidGold40

The year was 1994. I was 21, heartbroken, and was lucky enough to meet a couple of other super-talented—also heartbroken musicians by the name of David Craig and Jasper Benson. We started like most of the musicians we knew: with a Tascam 4-track in someone’s living room and a handful of mediocre songs with a couple of promising gems. In those early days, there was no hint of what was to come.

 

After several months, we named ourselves “Solid Gold 40” and got a full band together. To me, this was nothing short of extraordinary because I really had no musical background other than listening to it. Never played in bands. Never took music lessons. And I had only really been seeing live music actively for 3-4 years maybe. But we just so happened to meet up in Austin, Texas where there were plenty of clubs and gigs and people had an appetite to play and listen. So for a few years, we just wrote songs and managed to get on some bills and earn our stripes.

 

At one point, when we were playing in coffee shops (no kidding, we had a puppet show open for us like on This Is Spinal Tap) we realized that our bassist didn’t own a bass or know the songs… so we were just as well off calling someone up from the audience. So we cleaned out the rhythm section and started looking for a new line-up. One day when auditioning bassists, one guy stopped and packed up after an hour of playing and said, “I’m just not ready to lead a band.” At the time, we thought that was hilarious and pretty ridiculous, but looking back I can recognize that we didn’t exactly have our act together.

 

Just about every band has one person that does most of the other stuff: booking, making posters, getting merch, ordering CDs, etc. As we started figuring out the things you were supposed to do to get people to know about your band, I became that guy. It wasn’t a conscious choice so much as I got something out of it and seemed to be motivated to see that it happened. But at the time, I didn’t consider myself the “leader” of the band. I was the guitarist (not even the good one) and I wrote songs. I certainly wasn’t in charge. I remember one time on tour when I brought up the idea that if we ever got signed, would I get a bigger cut or something, and a couple of bandmates were incredulous. To me, it made sense, but I guess they didn’t see it that way. In hindsight, I realize that they neither asked me to do all that stuff nor did they probably realize what  it involved. That was my issue. Still, it was about that time that I started to resent my role a little.

 

Being ‘that band member’ is not all posters and buttons. You spend your non practice time prepping song charts and figuring out how you book or promote a tour. Often you put a lot of money into it and a whole lot of steep-learning-curve time. If you are successful at it, then that is rewarding, but often others don’t seem to notice.

 

While we had some great songs, but out a record and a half, toured twice, and put on some epic shows… ultimately, Solid Gold 40 was a legend in our own minds. I say that with all the love and warmth in the world. Our accomplishments were local and personal, but they were big and mattered nonetheless. I still believe we had potential for other places, but it just wasn’t meant to be. We disbanded in 2001.

Solid Gold 40. l-r Jasper Benson, Rebekah Whitehurst, David Craig, Philip White, David Wyatt.

Solid Gold 40. l-r Jasper Benson, Rebekah Whitehurst, David Craig, Philip White, David Wyatt.

 

In the decade and a half since, I’ve played in a few other bands and have found myself at odds with assuming the bandleader role. I don’t know if it is in an effort to get others to do their part or a reluctance to find myself resentful or even vulnerable in that “I went for it” sort of way. That said, even though I’m not a full-time band leader like my one-time bandmate Josh Robins (another band, another story, another time), I learned a lot from that experience—about myself and the way things work. I apply these lessons in my life, in my company, and even in fatherhood. Here are a few of the high points:

 

+ Just ask: A lot of things like booking or media coverage or partnering with bands or odd venues seem out of reach, but what you learn when you are trying to put a show or tour together is “all they can say is no”. When we released our cassette (insert old guy joke here) we had the idea to do a rooftop show like the Beatles and U2. We picked the top of the Barnes & Noble on the drag across from the UT campus and then we just asked if we could do it. They agreed and—while we got shut down by the cops after 6-7 songs—it was a great experience and led to our CD release on a party boat, which may have just been the best show we ever played. Years later, I still use that spirit of ‘why not’ to get things done.

 

+ Fake it until you make it: I’ve never been a great musician. I’m a fair songwriter and a mediocre singer and guitarist. In fact, the driving force behind playing guitar was just to write songs. But then I found myself in a band and called on to do a solo, etc. I’m still a pretty average player, but I learned to do it with gusto and to have confidence. Turns out that can go a long way.

 

+ Give the crowd what they’re screaming for: Early on we had sea shanties and disco songs and noise bits. Those were all a part of the process of finding our best sound, but we discovered that the interest from the audiences and the clubs didn’t come until we got focused. That’s not to say one should sell out to succeed, but I believe there’s a wisdom in doing what’s clearly working for you. In my flower delivery job around the same time, I called it “go where the green lights take you” meaning the marketplace will tell you what it wants—even in art. See also: Louis Blacks’ “Advice for artists, inspired during the whirlwind of SXSW 2005” from The Austin Chronicle.

 

+ When you stand on tables, sometimes you bust your ass: I am a proponent of showmanship vs. shoe-gazing. Over the years, this has evolved from colorful costumes to running around the club antics. On one West coast tour, we ended up at our Oakland destination and they didn’t even seem to remember we were booked. WE had an audience of maybe 8 people, but weren’t going to let that stop us from melting their faces off. So, on the first song, I strapped on my double neck guitar and stepped onto a chair and empty table up front—whereupon it slid away and put me flat on my back like Charlie Brown with the football yanked away. I had the wind knocked out of me but I played my intro any way. It didn’t make it any less great. In fact, it made it moreso.

 

+ Hard work is it’s own reward: As I look back on those Solid Gold 40 days and the bands I’ve played in since, I realize that regardless of my aspirations or the complicated relationships or what come of it all, every bit of it was worth it. Being in Austin and toiling away at venues that don’t give a shit, it is easy to forget sometimes what a privilege it is to make music with talented people for audiences that want to hear your original ideas. Now, I’ve done a lot of crazy things in the name of rock and roll. I’ve played with bad asses I had no business sharing the stage with and a lot of it was pretty spectacular. I am reminded of a great scene from Man on the Moon, the 1999 movie about Dadaist comedian Andy Kaufman. I have no idea if this was based on something he said but when someone said that the fans weren’t going to get it, he replied “it’s not for them.” In the end, what you have is the experience and if you made it matter.

 

 

David Wyatt is a songwriter, performing musician, business owner, husband, father, and coffee enthusiast. He’s played in bands including Solid Gold 40, Stinky del Negro, Summer Breeze, Magnifico, and The Ron Titter Band. He dedicates this post to his wife Rachel, to Josh, and to his SG40 friends David Craig, Rebekah Whitehurst, Phillip White, and the late great Jasper Benson.

 

Czars Stars

We have this joke reward system that started on the last Invincible Czars Nosferatu tour. When someone (in or not in the band) does something remarkable or really helpful, they get a Czar Star.

At some point, actual, physical Czar Stars started showing up… and I’m not even the one doling them out!

But if I was, here’re some of the things that I think deserve Czars Stars. If you do these things for your band, you probably go un or under recognized by your band mates but not by me. (Some of these are really specific to the Czars and our upcoming tour. If you did these, thank you!)

1) Playing a near perfect show nearly every night.

2) Maintaining the web presence – web site, social media.

3) Making Facebook event pages for every show. (oh, did you check to see if someone else made one already? Damn. That was a waste of time.)

4) Booking the shows. (this could be a full time job on its own)

5) Contacting press, radio, other media ON TIME (this could be a full time job on its own)

6) Having artwork/photos made and properly formatted for various uses. (CDs, posters, web graphics, t-shirts, etc.) THIS IS HUGE and nearly everything else on this list depends upon it. Artwork and images go everywhere – web site, videos, merchandise, press lists, social media.

7) Video shooting and editing (if you’re not someone who already knows about this and you take it on, you get 5 additional stars)

8) Making a pre-show playlist

9) Finding lodging

10) Selling merchandise

11) Determining day to day scheduling (departure time, arrival time, dinner time, load in time, show time, strike time, sleep time, etc.)

12) Loading

13) Driving

14) Managing the Merchandise (inventory, storage, pricing, signage and display, payment options like credit card readers, online sales, finding the best places to have it made, etc. This is another huge time consuming job!)

15) Contributing money to keep the bus moving.

16) Writing marketing language and descriptive language and knowing the difference between the two

17) Writing the music

18) Running Sound

19) Playing instruments (including electronics) you don’t normally

20) Providing transportation and maintaining it

21) Providing the practice space

22) Communicating with fans – in person or online

23) Making recordings and formatting them for various uses (CD, web, vinyl, whatever)

24) Dealing with any kind of legal issues (copyrights, insurance, etc.)

25) Accounting and Taxes

26) Cooking and cleaning

27) Getting your band out of any sticky situation

28) Remaining positive in the face of not so positive circumstances

I think it’s worth noting that simply stating a good idea isn’t on this list. Good ideas deserve recognition, no doubt, but they don’t really deserve a Czar Star until they become reality.

ex: let’s tour Europe, get our own sound/light person, make some merchandise everyone wants, break into college campus gigs, shoot a high quality video that’s fun to watch, play with an orchesrta, write a hit song, etc.

Those all sound good but realizing them takes way, WAY more time, effort and luck than just dreaming them up.

There are tons of idea-people out there who can make long, long lists of to do items but when it comes to actually executing those ideas, very few people actually make it happen.

You may never get a Czar Star because all that behind the scenes stuff doesn’t seem to matter to people who’ve never felt the pain of doing (or not doing) those things. It’s behind the scenes and if you’re doing it right, hardly anyone notices. You’re like the Navy SEAL of your band. You’re beyond Czar Stars.

My Own Fear of Success

It occurred to me that doing a series on development is kind of redundant.  I mean… this whole blog is about development.

This week I wrote about my own fear of success.  Skip it if you don’t like my entries that are more journal-like.
Fear of success seems absurd.  We’re all trying to succeed all the time, right?  Fear of failure seems logical.  We don’t want to fail.

I experienced fear of success on the most recent Invincible Czars tour and it didn’t seem absurd.  Here’s what happened.

I/we chose to write a score to the silent film Nosferatu after many requests and suggestions from people at our shows.  I was reticent even after acquiescing.  In my mind, Nosferatu is so very done in the world of silent film accompaniment.  Every little art house cinema in a town with a metal band, an community orchestra or an electronica act has had the idea to show Nosferatu at Halloween with live accompaniment.  There are tons of new scores for this movie out there.  Not only that, the original score has been found and a DVD of the movie featuring it is available now.

But, once I decided to do it, I delved in.

Of course, we decided to do it for Halloween and I spent six months of daily work writing, refining and recording the music, finding venues and dealing with booking and promoting and creating all the materials to do so (flyers, post cards, marketing language, video previews, a band photo) and the merchandise.  I didn’t have to do this all alone but I knew I was the lynch pin with all this stuff coming together.

There were a bunch of little successes throughout that process.  We made a surprisingly good recording that was done BEFORE the shows for once.  We also had killer (ha!) artwork and a tour of nothing but silent movie performances — no rock shows to connect the dots.  That was a big success.  I’d dreamt of one day doing this and it actually happened!

On the non-music side, I spent many, many hours and days working on our van (Van Halen) this summer.  It continued falling apart all the way through the end of the tour.  It’s amazing that it we made it anywhere but all those hours paid off.  I was able to keep it moving, albeit slowly at times, throughout the tour.

In fact, our engine started misfiring again (after six weeks of smooth sailing) only 3 hours into  the tour and we stumbled into Huntsville, TX.  At the time I thought, “This day is just a sign of what was to come… ugh.”
Based on the past, we’d made  the same amount of merchandise we usually make for a tour – not much.   We made a few posters for the first time hoping we’d sell half of them.

We were pleasantly surprised to play for a full house that night and I was shocked that we very nearly sold out of all our t-shirts, sold most of our posters and about half our CDs.  We still had 17 more shows to go!  gadzooks!  We scrambled to get more of everything made and were barely keeping up with demand for the whole rest of the tour.
(Thank you to anyone reading this who bought a t-shirt and let us mail them to you later!)

That day did turn out to be a sign of what was to come but not in the way I’d expected.  People were telling their friends and family in other towns to come see us when we were passing through other places.  The media actually picked up on it and we were the recommended thing to do that week in nearly every town we played.    We beat our record for single-day merchandise sales on this tour!

But I couldn’t get positive about it.  Everyone was revelling in our success after a sold out Tuesday night in Pensacola, when I launched into this negative spiral that must surely have confused and confounded my bandmates.  The next day, it occurred to me that I was complaining about our success.

Now that’s absurd.

But my fear wasn’t going away.  I decided to write down everything that had me feeling scared about a tour that, for once, was doing better than just breaking even on costs.  Those fears included:

  • This string of full houses is going to end and then everyone’s going to be disappointed and morale will be even worse than if we’d had mediocre shows all along.  Just as the others praised me for lucking into these successes, they’ll all turn on me as soon as we have an off night.
  • Now the bar’s set higher.  Not only does our old standard for a “good” night of merchandise sales suddenly look paltry, but everyone’s going to expect it to be this to be the new norm.  When it gets back to the old norm, I’ll be the one to blame.
  • This is a lucky one-time success.  It’s great that we’re riding this wave for now but I don’t think I can recreate this again and again.
  • What if this is as good as it gets and I’ve peaked?  Is it all down hill from here?
  • I like doing the silent movies but it’s not all that we do.  We may be building an audience but it’s just for one aspect of what we do.  This movie is the draw, not us. The artwork is better than the music.  We’ll never see these faces again.
  • I’m not even challenging myself out here.  My parts are so easy, I don’t even need to warm up to play them.  Am I growing as a player or just plateauing with this?
  • The van’s going to die out here and all our resources will be pooled into fixing it just to keep moving.  No one will be happy to see their cut of the income go to a van rental company even if we keep on having good attendance.

(Out of all of those, the last one is the only one I should’ve been worried about.)

After I wrote all that stuff down, I realized that I was scared of success.  What a weird place to be.  Failure, by contrast, didn’t scare me.  I’ve dealth with that a lot before and feel confident I can deal with it again.  Hell,  I already had plan B and plan C ready go.  So ready to go in fact it was almost as if I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to put them in action.

This success seemed to me like beating a level of space invaders where the reward is a chance to keep playing the game but now the space invaders are moving faster… and you’re not!   There’s an instant where you’re still in disbelief that you cleared that last level as a whole new and more difficult set of space invaders bears down on you.  (This reminds me of my own entry about Proving It.)

Six months of work resulted in 18 amazing shows in 17 days.  Coming off that is… not brutal but it’s the most difficult “Now What?” I’ve faced in a long, long time.  So now I guess get to play space invaders some more.  Good thing I like the game.

 

Bill – One Year Later

This week I’m taking a break from my series on development to reflect on where I am 1 year after the death of my friend and longtime band mate Bill Petersen.

I still miss him of course but I also feel  lingering guilt.  Not because I had anything to do with his death but because I could’ve been a better friend.

This may seem tangential but stay with me:

All the victim blaming stuff in the media lately has made me realize how ingrained it is in me and everyone.  When something bad happens to me, I almost immediately ask myself, “how could I have prevented this?” In fact, just writing the words “when something bad happens to me,” makes me cringe a little.  My inner editor wants to change that line to, “when I make a mistake” or some other language that makes me responsible for everything I experience.

But the truth is that there billions of other people in this world and many more forces in the universe at play all the time.  To think that we are 100% responsible for our paths is arrogant, in my opinion. And writing that today is relieving in some ways.

Bill had a lot of stuff going on that lead him to an early death.  Sure, some of those factors were his own doing – in 10 years of knowing him, I never knew him to do much of anything physically strenuous even close to what you might call “exercise”.  In the time we lived together near St. Ed’s University in Austin, I witnessed a lot of beer drinking and TV watching.  Bill knew he had some medical issues that eventually led to his heart condition but he chose to just live his life the way he wanted.  It was really easy, after he died, to say that he hastened his own heart failure and it was really easy when it was happening to essentially blame him for not taking better care of himself (which I still think he should’ve done!)

But Bill didn’t choose to have the heart condition.  He was born with it.  I guess he could’ve chosen to work a day job that didn’t provide him any health insurance but even if he’d had medical insurance at the time of his first heart attack (pre-Obamacare), the cost of his treatment would have still put him in debt for life.  Plus he probably would’ve had to have  some job that would’ve prevented him from playing music or doing what he loved.

There were lots of ways he could’ve probably lengthened his life.  But what was the price?  Was it worth it? Just barely, to him. Bill LOVED salty food and beer.   After his first heart attack, he lived 5 more years that were spent fighting the temptations of all that he felt was worth living for!

I mean… he couldn’t eat pizza.  That’s just unthinkable to me.

Last night Hen3ry Q Vines said to me, “Joggers and non-smokers die every day.”  HA!  So, even the people who do all the “right” things eventually die.  What choices could they have made to lengthen their lives and at what cost?  I suppose they should’ve had the foresight to be born in a future where their consciousness could live on forever by some technological means I can’t even imagine.  It’s their own fault.  It was a bad choice to be born now.

That sounds silly but I think that’s the message many people get from our society – if you’d just made better choices, all of this could’ve been avoided. I guess that’s true when it comes to things like dropping out of school or spending all your money on weed instead of paying the rent. But it doesn’t apply to things we don’t actually choose — like someone else’s actions or biological realities. She would’ve made so much more money had she only been born male…

Each of has only our own experiences and resources at hand to guide us.  Some of us are lucky enough to be born into lives that are rich with those things.

Most aren’t.  Does that mean that the less privileged are unworthy of help?

Apparently so.  Americans are so obsessed with “the best” in our modern day Social Darwinist climate.  If it’s not the absolute best, it may as well be dead last and not bothering to foster.  Anything short of #1 is not worth helping.

That seems so backwards to me.  We only seem to want to help those who are already winning.  So the only way to deserve or earn help is to not need it?  Sounds like the entertainment business… or just about any business in the US.

(What’s mind boggling is that those “winners” are often only winning BECAUSE of the help they get but don’t acknowledge – like corporations that lobby for lower taxes and regulations as they bank on public funds/infrastructure, claim public resources for their own and then create their own self-serving regulations that keep anyone else from having a piece of the pie ever. Even more mind boggling is how we seem to buy into it hoping to be struck by the lightning bold of luck so we can become just like them!)

There’s truth to the idea that we all make our own choices and must live with them but it’s not as if we all have an entire spectrum of options ranging from the best to the worst.  If we did, who would ever choose anything but the best?!

Because of that, “the best” is relative and in our only-the-best-will-do world, “the best” eventually just becomes lowest common denominator – odorless, colorless and easy for everyone to digest.  If variety is the spice of life, then most Americans choose to eat mayonnaise sandwiches.  They’re “the best”.

Bill never ate mayonnaise sandwiches.  Not until the end, anyway, when the cost of all that spice caught up with him and he had to start making choices his body could afford.

He lived how he wanted.  He paid the price but I think he was glad to.

I wish I’d been more understanding.  At one point, his health and attitude became so bad that I finally made him take a 6 month hiatus.  He did NOT like that.  I felt bad even at the time, but he felt awful, acted like he couldn’t stand rehearsing or gigging and wasn’t playing well.  He didn’t talk to me much in those 6 months and you know… he never really came back full time.  I felt somewhat justified (but not happily so) when, at the end of the 6 months, he had a cardiac “event” that made him realized he really did need to focus on his health.  That was about 16 months before his death.  I’m really glad that there was time for him to be annoyed with me and then for us to grow closer again before he passed.

I guess what makes me feel so damn bad is that I was just another person telling him he needed to give up something he loved so he could go on living – and even worse so that I could go on doing the thing he loved without having to drag him along (his own words).   One more person giving him mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread as if eating enough of them would ever make the salty sirloin dinners that made life worth living an option again… all the while indulging in those delights right in front of him.  Sometimes literally.

I wish I had found a better way to be more inclusive and kept him more active in our band.  I wish I’d played to his strengths rather than writing off his surliness as unwillingness to grow or change for the better when if fact it was because maintaining his existing abilities had become so hard for him.   I wish that when he was gruff with me, I could’ve seen the bigger picture – that his anger and impatience weren’t because of me, just directed at me because I was the guy in charge.

I mostly wish his last meal in OCT 9, 2014 would’ve included a salty ribeye and a whole twelve pack of India Pale Ale.

 

Vans

If you really want to get on the Warped Tour, start by firing your whole band (including yourself) and replacing them with some pretty boys with dyed black hair and lip piercings. Then print a bunch of shirts with your band logo on front and the offensive word of your choice in Impact font on the back.  Now you’re ready to …

Oh wait, different kind of van… let me shift gears(remember to edit that out later.)

I spent a good deal of my time in the last two weeks working on our van (Van Halen). I had to perform the dreaded spark plug replacement job – a task that is relatively simple routine maintenance on most vehicles but is a huge pain in the butt (and fingers and elbows) on this make/model. In fact, mechanic shops have asked as much as $1000 to perform this on our van. Parts for the job are about $50. So I set about doing it myself.

Aaryn Russell (Muppletone, Flying Balalaika Bros.) and I changed a couple of them a 9 years ago. Then my dad helped me change the rest out in Salt Lake City. He said I used up all my car help from him for the rest of my life on that job. It really sucks and this time two of the plugs were stuck.

Thankfully, it seems to be working now but on day 10 after several other issues in addition to the spark plugs had popped up, I was really considering either buying a new vehicle or renting a van from then on.

Well, not really. Renting doesn’t seem like a good idea to me unless you’re just doing a few shows out of town a year. Otherwise, owning your own band van or vehicle is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Opposite Day is about to do a 4 date run to Carbondale, IL and back (where they get to play with Cheer-Accident and Yowie!) so I’m going to use that trip as a possible illustration for renting versus owning.

If OD rents a van for 4 days from Capps Truck and Van Rental, it’s going to cost them $500 plus $0.25 for every mile over 600 that they drive.  OD is also doing Lawrence and Norman and I estimate the total trip in miles to be about 1900 miles so the total rental cost would be approx. $825.  That’s over $200 per date they’re playing.

However, looking at OD’s past shows, they haven’t played outside of Texas very much in the last 10 years.  So let’s use a more typical example to them.   If they picked up a single date in Houston and needed the van for just 24 hours,  it’d cost them $167 plus $32.50 in extra miles.  That’s about $200 just to use the vehicle for a single show.   Same as the above.  I think we can safely say it costs $200 to rent a van for a single date.

That’s not terrible.  If they only did this a few times a year, it’d be cheaper than bothering to buy, maintain and insure a vehicle.

So let’s break down what I payed to own by van per year.  I bought it ten years ago for $8000.  Let’s tack on:

  • $1000 interest (high estimate)
  • insurance for ten years – $3500
  • tires – 4 x $500 = $2000
  • oil changes – $120 x 10 = $1200
  • other repairs – $10000 (this is a very high estimate.  there were several years where my repair costs were nearly $0)
  • registration/inspection – $800

total = $28,500 – so let’s just say $30,000 or $3000 per year that I’ve owned it.

If the Invincible Czars only played 15 road dates per year (ha!), that breaks down to $200 per show.  Wow.  The same as Capps but with no maintenance and always in a van in good working order!

So maybe it’s worth it if your band doesn’t play out of town much.

But if you do more stuff and look at the long term, it’s worth it to own.  The Invincible Czars did about 30 road dates in the last calendar year.  30 x $200 = $5000 in rental costs.    That’s $2000 more than the average cost per year of owning my van.  We played out of town 30 times a year every year since I’ve owned it.  That means I saved approx. $20,000 by owning the van (I’m sure rental rates were cheaper in 2005 than now).

It’s worth asking, “What if my band doesn’t last that long?”  The good news is that you can use your van for any band.  Van Halen has been used by The Invincible Czars, Foot Patrol, Boss Battle (many times), La Mancha, The Genius Mistake, Poon, Sweetmeat and more that I would probably remember if reminded.

Plus, I had it available to me at all times and used it as my personal vehicle during that time.  It’s come in useful any time I’ve needed to move anything big. Several higher paying wall paper gigs paid me more because I was able to transport the PA system.

Downside – you will help everyone you know every time they move.

So, if you do buy a van here’s what I recommend:

  • research the best make/model and year for your budget and band size.  I bought one of the highest rated vans of all time in 2005 – the 1999 Ford Econoline.  One regret – wish I’d gotten one size bigger.
  • buy the newest used model you can afford.  DO NOT BUY NEW.
  • have a mechanic check out the vehicle before you buy it.  I recommend Lemon Busters in Austin.  They will go to the vehicle, drive it and send you a report and you don’t even have to be present.
  • Buy a repair manual specific to your vehicle and keep it in the vehicle
  • Learn to do as much routine maintenance yourself as you can (except oil changes – they’re so cheap, it’s worth it to have someone else do it and dispose of all the old oil properly).
  • Find a friend or relative who likes/knows about working on cars and get their help when something goes wrong.  Pay them back in other favors or chicken stew.
  • Find a good, affordable mechanic in your hometown.  (I have been very happy with Luu Automotive on Kramer in Austin)
  • Keep a tool kit in your vehicle filled with at least the bare minimum you’d need to work on most problems.  Very often you’ll find that the same size screw appears over and over in your vehicle.   I’ve found that I can go a long way with a ratchet, a 5/16″ socket and flat head screwdriver.
  • Live with little or cosmetic things that aren’t worth the bother or expense of fixing – dents, electric locks, etc.
  • Read and heed the owner’s manual and maintenance schedule.  Lots of oil change places have gotten a bad rap for selling unnecessary fuel flushes and stuff like that but some of that stuff really IS necessary – like changing fuel and air filters, spark plugs, etc.  Know the difference.  (I still get bamboozled by this!)

But don’t just listen to me.  I don’t like working on cars and remain mostly ignorant about a lot of things under the hood.   I’d love to hear more tips from someone who knows what they’re talking about.  Leave them in the comments.

 

 

 

Playing Out of Town

Playing Out of Town After my last post, Xander from Proud Peasant suggested I expand upon the notion that you have to leave town to actually earn any money or get anywhere.

This idea seems to fly in the face of what of most experts advise: focus on your hometown and when you can sell out a show there, expand your region. I didn’t heed that advice because:

(1) By the time I heard it, I’d already played out of town and earned more money doing so than playing in Austin.

(2) Selling out a show seemed unlikely. How many sold out shows have any of us ever been to? How many of those were local bands? If it was easy to do, it’d happen all the time.

(3) It’s very possible to live in a place where your style of music is simply not popular. Ex: Jazz in Austin. There are plenty of bands that play huge events in other towns/nations that just play the same old clubs in Austin for years. They’re big Japan.

(4) As far as I could tell, there were plenty of bands that weren’t selling out in Austin or their hometowns but seemed to do ok on the road.*

(5) Austin is a unique market – just because you do well here, doesn’t mean you’ll do well anywhere else.

So I always questioned the need to sell out a show before moving on to other markets.

But here’s the catch 22 – if no one’s heard of you in a place, there’s no point in playing there. BUT —- for most bands, no one will hear of you in a place unless you go play there.

Furthermore, if you play a town that has no bands like you, there’re no similar bands there for you to network/co-promote with and you’ll play to no one. If you go somewhere that has bands that are like you, there’s no reason the people there should come see you. They can see the local version of you any time (but at least you stand a chance of winning over some of their fans if you play together). This is why shows in music towns like Austin or Seattle are so tough.

When I look at Austin bands that seem to create careers for themselves, most DO sell out shows here and then move on. The Sword. Ghostland. Octopus Project. Bob Schneider. Spoon. Okkervil River. But why limit this example to Austin? Neko Case, Reverend Horton Heat, Mark Kozelek, Brave Combo, Built to Spill, Metallica, Secret Chiefs 3, Nirvana, Van Halen, Dirty Projectors, Flaming Lips, Daft Punk, etc. etc. etc.

They are all at different levels and from different places. It took longer for some than others but they all found something they did that people liked before they really took off.

(I’m not a big fan of Daft Punk, but I have to say that I admire their tenacity. I heard them for the first time in the 90s and would see them in alternative music magazines like Magnet. 14 years later, they had the worldwide number one hit of the summer.)

My own experience speaks to this in a small way. After years of booking shows all over the US with a modicum of success, I noticed everything suddenly got easier around 2011-ish. Booking. Rehearsals. Shows. Really everything. It only took playing most venues once for them to ask, “When can you come back?” Booking requests went from “may we?” to “when may we?” It was actually really easy to see why this had happened:

(1) We kept going to the same places and playing to people who I/we thought might really like us (instead of trying to force heavy metal dudes to appreciate our “ruined” version of Iron Maiden songs)

(2) The band was finally playing to its strengths and focusing on entertaining the audiences at least as much as ourselves. I finally had an act that people other than the band members could easily appreciate.

(3) The band line-up was the best it had ever been in every way. **

The point is – the band was finally getting pretty good at what we did and finding people who agreed. The better the band got, the more we resonated with others, the more opportunities and money came our way.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Make a cool, good thing. Then share.

And yet I and so many put the cart before the horse. That’s because it’s so easy to mistake the prototype for the final product. I like it so I bet others will, too. We’re wrong more often than not. I spent much of the early 00s playing road shows with a band/material that had no evidence of resonating with anyone else. It was a long and frustrating game with a very small chance of winning fans. I was too focused on satisfying myself. I think most bands do this. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just that the only way you’ll grow outside your region is if what satisfies you just happens to resonate with others.

Here’s the advice I’d give the me of 10 years ago — if your hometown audience is mostly other small time musicians, there’s no point in leaving town. Most of them are just there because they’re opening for you or vice versa. That doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t good. It simply means that your efforts to expand will be very, very difficult if non-musicians don’t appreciate what you do. You don’t need to drive to San Jose to play to indifferent people at a bar or furniture when you can do it right here in Austin.

As much as I didn’t want it to be true, Graham Reynolds was right when he said that I put the The Invincible Czars “on the map” when we debuted our Nutcracker Suite: It was the first thing ever did that attracted people outside our group of friends/bands in any significant way.

Another thing about playing out of town – unless some publicist picks you up, you’ll have to go through almost the same reputation and fan building process you did in your hometown in every town you play. This is made much easier what you’re really good at what you do.

 

*I may have been really wrong about this. Over time, I started to realize that most bands were losing money on the road – even the ones with booking agents and reputable record labels. I’ve never had illusions that the music I make will have mass appeal. The number of other bands’ sold out shows I’ve attended over the years is small because I tend to like bands that are the same way. Even when I was college age, my favorite bands were rarely on college radio or on the college charts. And yet they’d come to Austin and have great shows. I saw Oakland’s Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fill rooms several times including one amazing Monday night show at the old Emo’s inside stage.

 

** Leila, Phil and Hen3ry made the Invincible Czars really easy to book. They’re fun to watch, fun to hear, reliable and dedicated. This is not meant to offend past members of the band, it’s just that we were all on the same page at this time and it paid off.